Donald Haynes has the first in what promises to be a series of posts about John Wesley and Aldersgate. Haynes sets out in this piece to reduce what he sees as a mistaken view of Wesley as a spiritual icon without any days of doubt or struggle.
I have to admit, I do not run very often into the false idol Haynes is trying to knock down. To the contrary, I meet lots of United Methodists who are only too ready to nod when told about Wesley’s flaws, faults, and doubts. From my experience, the people called United Methodist do not suffer from an overly credulous or reverential treatment of John Wesley.
In Haynes’ effort to show that Wesley was not a monolithic figure, he brings in the venerable Richard Heitzenrater to assert that Wesley’s theology shifted in significant ways over the course of his ministry. Of course, whether this is true or not depends a great deal on what we mean by significant, but I personally have never been overwhelmed by the arguments that Wesley shifted ground on any of the bedrock commitments in his theology. There was some change, but the Wesley of the 1780s was preaching and advocating essentially the same things that the Wesley of the 1740s was.
Haynes appears concerned that we make the Aldersgate experience too important to Wesley and therefore to our theology, but it is hard to imagine how we could make too much of it. For Wesley, Aldersgate was about justification, and justification never dropped out of his theology. Indeed, he can be found highlighting the need for a Christian to experience both conviction and justification in his sermons, his journals, and his letters into the late years of his ministry.
We might argue that not everyone has to have an Aldersgate experience to be justified, but the experiences of 1738 were hugely influential on both John and Charles Wesley. If you doubt that, try singing “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” or “And Can It Be” or many other hymns without being hit square in the face with the language of justification.
If there is a rash of over zealous Wesley heads out there who insist that John Wesley never experienced any doubts and never struggled with temptation and sin, well, I suppose they do need to be corrected. But I do not think the proper corrective is to suggest that Aldersgate was a minor event in Wesley’s faith. If we teach that, we risk teaching United Methodists that justification and conversion are optional or even detrimental to the life of faith.